Oh man, I imagine the first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting is like this. Shame. Slight edge of defensiveness. Pride. Self-loathing. Wondering how soon I can leave so I can get a drink. Before you wonder why I’m writing about this here, I’d like to remind you that energy drinks are the actually on the Nerds, Dorks and Geeks national flag.
I’m a Red Bull drinker. Here’s why:
- I like the taste: it’s sour, which masks the sugar (sugar is one of the key components of feeling “vitilized”), and generically fruity.
- It is only 8 ounces. I don’t like drinking a lot of fluids (result: I’m dehydrated more often than not) and those giant 32oz or whatever Monster Energy drinks make me nauseated just looking at them.
- It does not have high fructose corn syrup.
- It’s only “speed” product is caffeine.
- It actually does increase a sense of well-being and brain activity. I get no fast-up, fast-down crash like I do from even a cup of coffee.
Now, the first explanation I get from people who dislike Red Bull is the flavor, which is something I can’t really argue. Okay, you don’t like it. I happen to. I prefer sour beverages over sweet as a rule and I appreciate that Red Bull tastes, well, like Red Bull. Not strawberry or piña-colada, or melon. It is what it is.
Now, the second explanation I get is generally that that person “can’t drink” energy drinks. Meaning they can’t physically deal with the speedy, jittery mess that comes from most of these products. My dad, for example, rather notoriously gets light-headed, fluttery and freaked out on them despite liking caffeine. A lot. And to be fair, most of these drinks have a whole cache of questionable South American fad-of-the-moment jungle drugs in them, probably explaining the lab-rat nightmare my dad experiences. As a side note, one of these drugs, guarana, is merely a source of caffeine, albeit in doses about 5x those found in coffee beans. It’s a fancy way of saying “a fuckton of caffeine”.
But this is where it gets interesting.
The caffeine is all the “energy” that Red Bull has going for it, and a mere 80mg per 8 ounces – that’s less than a cup of coffee. So its a $2 a can rip-off, right? Weeeee! Now for the science!
Famously, Red Bull brags about its taurine content, and taurine, kids, is an interesting thing. Its a serious chemical workhorse, not only found in the body naturally already, but critical in a variety of functions. Heavily researched, it can be said to reliably do the following:
- Decreases blood pressure.
- Protect against excitotoxicity (the damaging aspect of consuming aspartame and MSG).
- Is an antioxidant.
- Prevents muscular stress during exercise.
- Generally reduce risk factors of heart disease.
- Helps the brain regulate body fat (read: fights obesity).
- Lowers bad cholesterol.
- Helps to regulate blood sugar levels.
- Regulates hydration.
- Regulates electrolyte balance.
- Studies have shown that taurine intake results in reduced hangover symptoms (true!) ¹
There are a shit ton of resources on the net, but the general consensus is: it’s not damaging, at least not immediately so. There aren’t a lot of long-term studies on excess taurine consumption, but since it occurs in naturally high doses in fish and meat, it seems like our bodies can handle it. The flip side is that we may not be getting enough taurine, especially vegetarians and vegans.
The inclusion of taurine in Red Bull is not a speed or an energy boost, but an aid in both the function of the brain (reaction time, memory and stress regulation) but in the body’s ability to process physical strain. It’s a regulator, a throttle. Some research shows it might better allow the body to utilize caffeine, limiting the caffeine depression the body feels after the high fades.
Now we come to glucuronolactone. Glucuronolactone occurs naturally in the body as the liver processes glucose. It, like taurine, is not a speed or energy booster, but a carbohydrate that assists in detoxification. But research showed a strange side-effect: it made people happy. Not outrageously happy, but there it was, an unexpected sense of well-being and satiation.
All other ingredients in Red Bull are B vitamins, which in high doses create an increase in blood flow to the face and a kind of energetic flush. Feels a little like caffeine, but it doesn’t result in an elevated heart rate or have the accompanying jitters. More interestingly, B vitamins cannot be stored in the body, so we have to consume them on a regular basis. All fine and dandy, except that caffeine, nicotine and high fructose corn syrup all draw B vitamins from the body. So, if you’re smoking, drinking Coca-Cola and over the age of 30, chances are you’re burning through B’s faster than you’re replacing them. And are some of the first signs of B deficiency? Fatigue, irritability and depression. So you drink more coffee, smoke more cigarettes. Round and round.
So! As I am not a doctor nor a chemist, I can assure you of at least one thing: Red Bull is not some insane, Faster & Furiouser legal speed. Nor is it hooey. I think the $2 price tag could come down a little, but my honest feeling is if you’re going to drink a cup of coffee in an attempt to slap your brain into shape, you might be better off drinking a Red Bull. And, if Lindsay Lohan suddenly gets brain cancer, let’s all stop.
¹It should be noted that the caffeine in Red Bull probably counteracts this element. You might be better off buying a taurine supplement and popping a few of those.